“Best of” lists are weird and subjective things that ultimately just come down to which art objects batted their pretty eyelashes at the matching aesthetic sensibilities of any reviewer on any day. So, with that in mind, here’s mine for 2015. I honestly could have doubled both the honourable mentions and top spots, but in the end I went for fifteen of each – thirty titles in total that indicate a wonderfully creative year just gone by.
Just a quick disclaimer, I rarely read floppies these days, so it’s collections and one shots for me. There are also some gaps in my reading for the year because, you might be surprised to know, I sometimes do other things besides read comics. I haven’t gotten around to Sandman: Overture, for example, and I’m waiting for a deluxe, single volume of The Fade Out because I’m fancy like that. There are others too, so forgive me if your favourites ain’t here.
The below is a mix of new pieces and reviews from old columns I’ve clipped and tinkered with, because it seems crazy to rewrite them (except Sexcoven which I rewrote from scratch). I’ve indicated this self-plagiarism where appropriate.
(in no particular order)
by Héctor Germán Oesterheld & Francisco Solano López (Fantagraphics),
by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey & Jordie Bellaire (Image),
by Koren Shadmi (Z2 Comics),
by Glenn Head (Fantagraphics),
Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler
by Shigeru Mizuki (D&Q),
Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu
by Junji Ito (Kodansha),
by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics),
Invisible Republic vol.1
by Gabriel Hardman & Corinna Bechko (Image),
Master Keaton vols.2 & 3
by Naoki Urasawa (Viz),
Last Man vols.1&2
by Balak, Michael Sanlaville & Bastien Vives (First Second),
Southern Bastards Book One
by Jason Aaron & Jason Latour (Image),
Deadly Class vols. 2 & 3
by Rick Remender, Wes Craig & Lee Loughridge (Image),
Lone Sloane: Delirius
by Jacques Lob & Phillipe Druillet (Titan),
by Grant Morrison & Frazer Irving (Legendary),
by Lucy Knisley (Fantagraphics).
THE BEST OF 2015
(in no particular order)
By Nick Sousanis
Published By University of Harvard Press
If you want your comics to give you the kind of mad mind-swirl and existential gut tingles you can only get from philosophy or drugs, Unflattening is the book for you. It will make you question everything from the way you look out the window, to the intensity of your dog’s reality, to exactly how the way you’ve been educated to perceive the world and our place in it has limited us all. Unflattening is 2015s most important comics work, blending our favourite medium with philosophy, art, history, science, literature, astronomy and comics itself to create “an insurrection against the fixed viewpoint.” It’s kind of like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics mutated into “Understanding Everything.”
Essentially, “Unflattening” (as a term) refers to “a simultaneous engagement of multiple viewpoints from which to engender new ways of seeing.” This can be achieved, in basic form, by simply as closing one eye, then the other, then considering that your visual perception already comes from two different, “overlapping” source points or by thinking about how amazing it is that dogs’ profoundly developed senses actually function as a “time capsule” of all manner of information, or even by Nick Sousanis choosing to create his thesis on perspective by quoting everything from Plato to The Wizard of Oz to Eratosthenes and utilising the comics medium to do so. The book fairly crackles with ideas and not just in terms of its subject but in its construction. Sousanis’ layouts are superbly creative and clever, frequently even lovely, enabling everything from the complexity of astronomy; the idea of parallax, the rhizomatic thought structures of Deleuze and Guattari, the visual representations of scent, to be easily and hungrily digested by his readers.
Unflattening is an idea-bomb, an essential read. Personally, I had a difficult 2015. I lost sight of a great many things, my writing, my friendships, my happiness as my world and my perception continually narrowed, “flattened.” For me, Unflattening functioned both as new thought and potent reminder of something that can slip away when things get hard: we are not limited to what we feel, what we see, what others tell us is the definitive, final answer on virtually anything.
If I can quote just a little more:
“The ways of seeing put forth are offered not as steps to follow, but as an attitude, a means of orientation, a multidimensional compass, to help us find our way beyond the confines of “how it is” and seek out new ways of being in directions not only northwards and upwards but outwards, inwards and in dimensions not yet within our imagination.”
I wish I could thank Nick Sousanis for Unflattening. It’s a comic to be savoured and re-read again and again. It has almost as many layers are there are potential ways of seeing.
By Taiyo Matsumoto
Published By Viz
Sweet, perfect heartbreak awaits readers of Taiyo Matsumoto’s Sunny, amped up to absolute artistic perfection with 2015’s volume 5, a book so bittersweet and beautiful it may well choke you up.
Semi-autobiographical in nature, Sunny is manga-ka Matsumoto (Tekkonkinkreet) taking readers back to a kids foster home in the 1970s, where his cast of adorable and feisty kids are forced to come to terms with parental abandonment, the big, sad world of grownups and each other, seeking refuge in an old yellow Datsun Sunny where their imaginations are given free reign.
The kids’ relationships with their mothers take centre stage for much of volume 5, with these orphaned and abandoned struggling youths to move forward in young lives anchored to ghostly parental figures. The cast’s most precocious character, Haruo, abandons an inter-home baseball tournament to explore the big city. Hanging out with Tsuda, a seemingly street wise kid from another school, Haruo shakes down a city kid for money, smokes cigarettes and plays video games. When Haruo loses a tin of Nivea cream, Tsuda shoplifts a fresh can for him, aware that Haruo smells the cream as a way of remembering a mother he’s forgetting. ‘Jus’ exterminate ‘em from your brain,” Tsuda says of Haruo’s parents, “Erase ‘em.”
Sei has lost all contact with his parents, but has a plan to bust out of Star Kids and find them. His attempt to steal a car goes awry and given detention, staff read his heart-breaking journal, detailing, step by step his meticulously planned escape strategy and are forced to confess they now have no idea where his parents actually are.
Junsuke’s caught a nasty strain of Japanese flu and hallucinating both huge and miniature versions of himself and little brother, Shosuke, he forces himself through a nasty medicinal shot by thinking of his very sick mother, who likely goes through far worse on a daily basis.
I won’t spoil any more of the book, suffice it to say that it’s tender to the point of bruising, with Matsumoto’s gorgeous, dreamy art, with its flourishes of magical realism via the children’s imagination and simply inspired cutaways and “editing,” make for a clinic on evocative and emotive comics, proof that powerful, dynamic storytelling can be achieved without physical conflict, exposition or dazzling colours. Sunny wraps up some time this year with a final volume. My own conflicted heart might not be able to take either what I presume will be a powerful conclusion or the absence of further volumes from my reading life.
By Liz Suburbia
Published By Fantagraphics
(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends September 29th)
Years ago, all the adults disappeared from the town of Alexandria, leaving the kids to carry on in their absence. On the whole, Sacred Heart’s cast of teenaged punks, nerds and jocks, navigating the minefields of their surging hormones, the complexity of their inter-personal relationships and the responsibility of raising younger siblings, does incredibly well without any grown-ups to guide them. It’s not all punk rock parties and young love, however. An apocalyptic vibe hangs over Alexandria, with the kids well aware of what’s happened to their parents, an odd religious undercurrent and, much more ominously, murders committed on their suburban streets.
Ben Schiller is one of Alexandria’s teens. She’s got a crush on a handsome football player with secrets of his own, an increasingly complicated relationship with her best friend Otto and a sister named Empathy who she worries about constantly. Sacred Heart is seen predominantly through Ben’s eyes and Suburbia expertly dilutes the high concept nature of Sacred Heart’s premise with beautiful moments of both character interaction and the continuing banality of everyday existence. Even in this most unusual of circumstances, the young characters struggle to keep on keeping on as time marches onward and more of their peers are killed.
Suburbia’s cartooning is just lovely, with her punk rock kids, starkly contrasting black and white and even her lettering recalling Jaime Hernandez by way of Brandon Graham’s full-lipped, rounded figures of all sizes and shapes. Her layouts are superb and her manipulation of comics space-time is a highlight. Her montage pages are exceptional, widening out her “lens” to cover a large portion of her cast in single-panel, everyday moments, creating breadth and scope within her world and yet also intimacy. Each of her characters is distinctive and whole, with his or her mannerisms and psychological concerns and, although it does not affect the narrative at all, the social order of High School intriguingly remains very much intact even though classes are no longer in session.
Sacred Heart is difficult to discuss without spoiling. It’s a comic that cares more about its characters than pushing its plot (the major story reveal is literally on the very last page, so don’t flip to the end if you are perusing a copy) but with Suburbia’s teens talking and interacting like actual teens, the complete banishment of exposition is actually one of the book’s great strengths. Its surprising subtlety and ambiguity means that much is left unexplained or to the reader to decode and further mysteries are revealed as existing ones tie up. However, Sacred Heart is created with such a sure hand that there’s no doubt Suburbia knows where she’s headed and how she’s going to get there.
Sacred Heart is, at over 300 pages, a complex, thrilling and lovingly created graphic novel that deserves not only a massive teen audience but also one way beyond the confines of that demographic.
Bring on part two, please.
THE PUMA BLUES: THE COMPLETE SAGA IN ONE VOLUME
By Stephen Murphy & Michael Zulli
Published By Dover
Although you might be struck by the irony of reading a massive, near-600 page lament over ever-escalating environmental catastrophe in a hardback with thick glossy pages, The Puma Blues more than deserves the lavish treatment Dover gives it.
A near lost-classic, The Puma Blues was a trailblazer of the ‘80s indie scene, running mainly from 86-89, a book that struggled to survive marketplace shifts and distributor tussles, all of which is recounted in an excellent Afterword by Stephen Bissette. It remained uncompleted until now, with original creators writer Stephen Murphy (TMNT) and artist Michael Zulli (Sandman) back in the saddle to provide an expansive conclusion to their abandoned baby.
Gavia Immer works for a shadowy government department in a US where The Bronx has been blown up in an act of domestic neo-nazi terrorism (a perhaps prescient notion) and is tasked with collecting rare species of animals, mutated thanks to pollution and environmental ruin by “shooting” them with a gun that transports the animals to “a US-Sino laboratory/reserve…in the People’s Republic of China.” Sequestered in a cabin deep in the woods, Immer’s only contact with the outside world is through rare visits from his superiors, video calls (essentially face time) with his mother and conversations with a trespasser on the land. Whiling away the hours studying wildlife (mainly in the form of flying manta rays) and watching old video tapes left behind by his deceased father – tapes exploring his father’s fascination with ufology, reality and philosophy – Immer’s detachment from the city increases exponentially and his ruminations on his father’s lectures as he studies a poisoned habitat around him lead to a significant personality shift.
Deeply melancholic, dreamy and poetic, The Puma Blues sucks readers in with Zulli’s stunningly realised flora and fauna and Murphy’s skilful linking of science, philosophy and speculation. Deep connections are explored – fathers and sons, man and technology, vegetation and animal – and although essentially plotless, the book will undoubtedly find its connections with you too. Bissette, in his Afterword, perfectly describes The Puma Blues as “a jazz-like comic book meditation on our culture’s headlong rush toward ecological disaster.” At times flowing seemingly freeform, at others structured rigidly, the highlight, proving Bissette’s point, is an extended sequence of nothing but animals in the woods at night, the titular puma, owls, deer, raccoons, frogs – a threatened ecosystem at work, a world within a world. With sound effects signalling the movements of these creatures, I actually experienced such a strange sense of peace in reading the chapter that I almost felt a part of the landscape Murphy and Zulli created. Which, of course, is the absolute intention – it’s an evocation of what we are rapidly losing.
Also featuring an introduction by Dave Sim and a short story by Alan Moore, The Puma Blues is a beautiful, brave book finally, thankfully completed and returned to the world, a virtual brick of comics as utter poetry.
By Max De Radigues
Published By Conundrum International
(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends July 14th)
Occasionally something comes along that completely derails my plans for this column as I become unexpectedly and totally obsessed with it. Moose, by Canadian creator Max De Radigues, became one of these things last year. Originally published in serialised mini-comics format by Charles Forsman’s Oily Comics, Moose was collected in its entirety in a lovely softcover by Conundrum International.
Joe is a sensitive and unpopular high school student who escapes some truly abhorrent bullying by slipping off into his small town surroundings to enjoy the wide open, snowy expanse of the landscape as well as the animals that populate it. He spots a big bull of a moose on one of these outings and the two share a tense moment before the animal realises that Joe means him no harm and disappears amongst the snow and the trees. The moose reappears, seemingly only to Joe himself, and becomes an object of fascination for the boy. Jason is Joe’s bully, a cruel, incredibly sadistic kid, whose bullying constantly escalates in cruelty and violence.
Both boys lack parental figures – Joe is raised by his grandmother and single mother, Jason by his grandparents and have clearly experienced some trauma in their development. This, however, is where the similarities between them end and when Jason follows Joe out into the wilderness one day, their conflict inevitably comes to a head.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Moose is the contrast of the two worlds, the two “natures,” presented. We have the school itself, bound by its own pecking order of cruelty, where Joe (the small, weak prey) can only feel safe by hiding himself in nests and burrows like the janitor’s closet or the sick bay. Making this cleverly apparent is a picture above the sick bay bed of an unborn baby sleeping in the womb hanging directly above Joe as he curls into the foetal position and snatches some rest, safe for now in this otherwise hostile environment. Contrast this with the world outside the school, mountainous and ice cold, a seemingly inhospitable environment, filled with predators of its own, yet one in which Joe is at home and always safe, despite his elders telling him “the woods are dangerous.” Jason, however, is not as home here as you would imagine one so predatory to be and his punishment for this trespass is brilliantly executed.
It’s difficult to say too much more without spoiling the work, but outside of De Radigues’ simple yet strikingly effective cartooning, I would also like to make note of his excellent little technical trick of inverting the tail of off-speaking word balloons to indicate the speech coming from outside his chosen shot. It’s a neat and innovative trick, one I can’t recall if I’ve seen before off the top of my head outside of some manga here and there. Go pick up this handsomely designed heartbreaker of a book.
SUPREME: BLUE ROSE
By Warren Ellis & Tula Lotay
Published By Image
From time to time, I get random text messages from a friend of mine named Steve. Here’s one he sent me last week:
“What if Warren Ellis wrote a 1980s-era Grant Morrison comic when he was still heavily influenced by Alan Moore = Supreme Blue Rose.”
That Steve. When he’s right, he’s right. Stunningly illustrated by one of my own absolute personal faves, Tula Lotay and featuring inspired scripts by Warren Ellis, who (if I can add to Steve’s soup of writer-influences) throws in some Dennis Potter vibes to create one of the strangest yet most artful books of his career, Supreme: Blue Rose is shockingly good.
For those who don’t know, the character of Supreme was concocted by Rob Liefeld to be his very own creator-owned Superman analogue, an uninspired, grey-haired musclebound character of ultimately little interest. Supreme got a second life, however, when Alan Moore got hold of him and brought to the title all the goofy 1960s Silver Age elements that were discarded from Superman as DC honed and altered the characters origins over the decades. It was brilliant. Not quite this brilliant, however. Supreme: Blue Rose has Ellis and Lotay concocting a hypnotic mind-bender, a mega-meta comic that’s complex and lovely in its construction and daring in execution.
Treating comic book reboots as manipulations of time and space, with “revisions” occurring “when time gets sick,” Supreme: Blue Rose finds down on her luck reporter Diana Dane hired by wealthy Darius Dax to find the missing Ethan Crane – Supreme – while keeping up with her favourite television serial (the amazing surrealist pulp adventures of Professor Night) sorting through “poisoned” evidence and warding off what she fears is schizophrenic meltdown as dreams become lucid and information feels as though it’s coming “from somewhere else” in the form of visitations from an Ethan Crane “lost in the new real world.”
Heady stuff for a reboot of a rebooted comic starring a Superman rip-off.
Lotay’s gorgeously posed femmes, like film noir icons, steal the show. Her female characters are beautifully, classically garbed (fashion is something that I don’t think gets talked about enough in comics), elegant and poised. Far from ignored, her male characters are dashing and distinct. She makes Supreme: Blue Rose easily one of the most visually striking books of 2015.
You might also get the feeling that a series essentially about an incorrectly rebooted Supreme is Ellis poking a little fun at his own inability to do exactly that, but if all reboots were this thoughtful, unique, dreamy and intoxicatingly illustrated, we’d all be rich in “revisions,” praying for a sick time to never quite regain its health.
INNER CITY ROMANCE
By Guy Colwell
Published By Fantagraphics Books
(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends April 28th)
In the early '70s, radicals and progressive thinkers inspired by the work of Kirby, Ditko and Lee began taking over Marvel, filling the company’s books with pop-depictions of existential angst and LSD-inspired colour bursts. At the same time, many artists of the comics underground were channelling their drug experiences as well as their social concerns into comix of humanist merit and real-world anti-authoritarianism. The work of Guy Colwell, in his Inner City Romance, is a prime example of this.
Over five issues dating from 1972-1978, Colwell created a cast of ex-cons, hippies, tenement dwellers and acid rockers who battled racism, poverty, the greed of the rich, the reach of The Man, and the depravity of incarceration. Colwell’s heavily African-American cast, use of urban slang and sympathy towards the downtrodden led many readers to believe that Colwell was in fact himself black. “I suppose it was natural to think I was black,” Colwell is quoted as saying in Patrick Rosenkrantz’s introduction, “because so few white creators would touch subjects like I did. Black concerns, issues, stories would be left to black authors/artists to deal with.”
Colwell, jailed as a conscientious objector, was a fine artist whose intricately detailed paintings, murals and prints depicted his love of nature and man's place in it. His prison stint politicised him further, however, and led him to channel his activism and anger at the inequality and injustice of the day and depict it on the comics page. Inner City Romance #1 sold over 50,000 copies over multiple printings, a staggering amount by today's standards. It featured a trio of freshly released ex-cons facing a choice between the seductions of the “free” world and the discipline and belief required to make significant change within it.
Colwell’s black-and-white art shifts from issue to issue, reflecting his growth as an artist, his desire to speed up the artistic process, and to suit the particular needs of his individual tales. It never less than striking. At its peak, it’s lovely – beautifully depicting the contrasts between the inner life and the outer. The profoundness of the LSD experience, the expression of desires in the dream lives of the incarcerated (even if this particular segment turns nightmarish) and the psychedelic dimension-hop of death are all contrasted with the ugliness and the struggles of urban life. Colwell's cities are grim, trash-filled places, where the white and the wealthy rule and the downtrodden, kept under thumb, have only sex, drugs, music, radicalism and one another to keep them at bay.
Sure, some of the slang is dated and it’s clearly a product of its time, but Colwell’s concerns are, sadly, still our concerns. This book clearly demonstrates that anger, frustration and a desire for change can produce quite the creative fire. Packed with essays and beautiful colour reproductions of Colwell’s social realist paintings, Inner City Romance is highly, highly recommended.
THE COMPLETE EIGHTBALL
By Daniel Clowes
Published By Fantagraphics
Leaving aside classics like Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World and Young Dan Pussey, all serialised within Eightball, the reappearance of Clowes’ short stories, peppered throughout the book show the cartoonist’s range and gift with the surreal, the dramatic and the off-kilter. For me, Clowes is at his strongest when he’s being serious -- for example, I could ramble forever about “Like a Weed, Joe,” with its teenage protagonist scrawling a love note in the sand only to have its possible reply washed away by the tide.
“Like a Weed, Joe,” as with many a Clowes tale is narrated by an older version of a character reminiscing back on a particular time with an analytical, dispassionate tone. The reader has no idea whether or not these characters are now happy, fulfilled or secure – all we get is this one sliver of their lives at their most awkward or insecure, melancholy generated as we are left to wonder what happened to them. A writing teacher of mine once described the Literary short story as always being a slice of the in-between, your readers dropped in to your characters’ lives for only the moment of middle you allow them to be a part of. There is no origin, there is no denouement, there is/are only the moment/s of the tale. It’s hard to find a greater example of this than “Like a Weed, Joe,” demonstrating Clowes’ skill at pushing the insecurities of the sensitive and artistic to the painful fore.
For a moment, forget the meticulous, superlative presentation of The Complete Eightball, forget the longer, well-established classics within, because for tales like “Like a Weed, Joe” alone this book easily makes its way onto a Best Of list almost twenty years after #18, the final issue bound within the second hardcover volume, was first published.
By Frederik Peeters
Published By Self Made Hero
(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends November 2nd)
Technonatural creation processes, to slightly paraphrase the character of Dr Rajeev, are at the heart of Frederik Peeters’ astonishing Aama, stories taking the SF paradigm of informational systems running amok into some new and beautifully terraformed imaginative spaces.
Aama is Swiss writer/artist Peeters’ award-winning four-volume saga, the final two volumes -- three and four -- of which arrived in 2015. Surely destined to be considered as classic as the work of Moebius, Druillet and others I bang on about every week in the Heavy Metal recaps, Aama has both the heaviness of concept and philosophy as well as the boundlessly inventive world-building you want in your finest far-future Euro SF.
Verloc Nim is a wreck of a man. His marriage has failed, he’s lost custody of his daughter, Lilja, he’s been swindled out of his family’s antique book business and he’s struggling to find meaning in an increasingly bleak and stoned existence. Verloc finds purpose anew, however, in the form of his estranged brother Conrad, who now works as something of a Mr Fixit for the Muy-Tang Corporation, one of numerous corporate entities responsible for a “great crisis.” Conrad’s latest mission sees him off to the planet Ona(ji) to ascertain what’s happened to a group of scientists outposted there to work on the mysterious “Aama” project. Conrad convinces Verloc to accompany both him and his cigar-smoking, simian-styled robot, Churchill, on the mission. And so begins arguably one of the finest cosmic epics ever in comics, certainly of the modern era.
Aama, to simplify, is a form of AI-driven nanotech. Verloc and co arrive on Ona(ji) to find the mission in ruins, Aama on the loose, and the world terraformed in increasingly strange and wondrous ways as they trek across the landscape the find Aama itself, who has for all intents and purposes, become the planet’s (re)creator and god. Over four 80-plus page volumes, Peeters slowly amps up his already impressive visual design; there is a surprise waiting on almost every page once the story truly gets underway, from techno-organic insects, to vaginal Venus fly traps, to lush forests of alien flowers all pulled from Peeters’ fertile mind.
Secrets over the project and the true nature of Aama unfurl, as well as Verloc’s true destiny and the plans Aama has for his daughter, a doppelganger of whom has somehow arrived on Ona(ji). Volumes three and Four, “The Desert of Mirrors” and “You Will Be Glorious, My Daughter” are as enthralling a read as I’ve had in 2015, with Peeters showing complete distain for the laws of nature and physics as well as time and space – both of our reality and comics space -- in ways reminiscent of Morrison and Quitely’s finest collaborations, reminders that there are some things that comics will only ever be able to do, other mediums be damned.
It’s easy to do Cosmic Freakout in comics but it’s a very difficult thing to pull it off with this much heart and this much intelligence with no irony at all and no heavy reliance on the canon of cosmic comics. Peeters manages not only this, but even seamlessly sandwiches in a super-powered punch-up and it’s one of such originality and imagination that its city-wide destruction is turned into something beautiful, the landscape modified and warped in the slipstream of the carnage and the godlike power of one of its combatants.
Aama is the product of a masterful singular vision. Beautiful and mad and packed with true emotion, it’s a wonderful take on posthumanity and the endless possibilities of something like nanotech, an already captivating speculative technological concept. An absolute classic.
NEW LONE WOLF & CUB
By Kazuo Koike & Hideki Mori
Published By Dark Horse Comics
(THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ORIGINAL LONE WOLF &CUB)
Picking up seconds after the conclusion of the original, New Lone Wolf & Cub sees Daigoro Itto, young son of the deceased Ogami Itto, collapsed by the side of his deceased father. Samurai Togo Shigekata finds the boy and soon realises who and what he has on his hands. Shigekata is master of jigen-ryu swordsmanship – the art of striking down a foe with a single stroke of a dotanuki sword, the type favoured by Ogami Itto. Taking Daigoro in, Shigekata (a fictionalised version of a real life samurai) begins training the boy in the art of jigen-ryu and the pair soon becomes enmeshed in a political plot filled with gender-swapping assassins, clans of spies, bandits, half Russian half-Japanese ninjas and the most determined and diabolical antagonist seen in recent comics memory as the shoganate clandestinely attempts to gain control of Shigekata’s home province of Satsuma.
Hideki Mori gamely steps up to fill the late, great Goseki Kojima’s considerable artistic shoes (hand-picked by Koike, who even asked permission of Kojima’s widow to continue the story) and he’s an inspired choice, updating the gritty, inky detail of Kojima’s work with the flash of a Ryoichi Ikegami (Ikegami, interestingly, drew a far less successful sequel to Koike’s Lady Snowblood following the passing of original artist – and hero of yours truly – Kazuo Kamimura). Everything, from riveting ocean battles to Shigekata’s opponents being gruesomely bisected, to a bad guy smuggling himself inside the corpse of a blue whale (!!), to the vast array of expressions on little Daigoro’s face and the blisters on his hands from training are just exceptionally drawn.
The faintest whiff of the magical hangs over Koike’s complex and increasingly bizarre political drama, as it did in the original, with characters shifting appearance from male to female with a rub of the face, or mesmerising with a swirling glance from a pair of hypnotic eyes. The fight sequences are increasingly thrilling and lop-sided in their good guy to bad guy ratio, the bond between Togo Shigekata and Daigoro is superbly developed, the stakes are super high and when little Daigoro hefts a real blade for the very first time in order to defend his new father figure you may well actually cheer out loud.
I believe that two volumes remain for publication in 2016 before the series wraps up. If you’re not on board already, binge-read one through seven and marvel at the plotting of Koike – how he turns the tables back and forth – and the brilliance of Mori as they somehow both intelligently and luridly spin Daigoro’s latest (last?) adventure.
THE MARQUIS OF ANAON: THE ISLE OF BRAC & THE BLACK VIRGIN
By Fabien Vehlmann & Matthieu Bonhomme
Published By Cinebook
(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends September 15th & All Star Recommends November 24th)
“When gales buffet the seas surrounding the isle of Brac, it is said that one may hear the voices of the dead, that they speak to the living bewailing misfortunes that lie ahead.”So begins “The Isle of Brac,” the first volume of The Marquis of Anaon. It’s an evocative start to a moody, suspenseful work of bande desinee.
Jean-Baptiste Poulain arrives by boat at the isle of Brac, wearing his newest and best finery in an effort to impress his new employer, Baron Gwenole, a man spoken of in whispers as “The Ogre.” The natives, immediately coming off as both impoverished and somewhat backward, fawn over him, remarking that in his tri-corner hat he looks well to do, like a “young Marquis.” For their attention, they are beaten and whipped by Yvon, one of the Baron’s servants, the first hint of many at mistreatment and cruelty on the isle.
Poulain has arrived in Brac to tutor Nolwen, Baron Gwenole’s son. However, when Nolwen is found beaten to death, the isle’s secrets, superstitions and possible supernatural connections begin to reveal themselves. Poulain, trapped on Brac, a place supposedly in touch with the realm of the after life, becomes something of a reluctant protagonist. Having suffered serious childhood traumas of his own, Nolwen’s death hits Poulain hard and, marked as an outsider on an isle full of outsiders cut off from the rest of the world, he finds himself in ever-increasing danger and is drawn closer and closer to the terrible secrets surrounding Nolwen’s death. “This isle is making me ill,” Poulain says, overwhelmed by death, dread and local myth, yet trapped on Brac, he has no other choice than to find the resolve to dig into the mystery surrounding the murder.
Velhmann’s other translated work includes the All Star Recommended Beautiful Darkness with illustrators Kerascoet (D&Q) and the (personally) disappointingly scripted 7 Psychopaths with Sean Phillips on art chores (Boom). Velhmann’s writing here is at once taut and expansive – a lot is packed into these 48 pages, yet the pacing is perfect – and with echoes of Dumas, Hugo and a dose of the gothic-mystery of Le Fanu, the story also packs some welcome sophistication.
Sumptuous pages, generously oversized in the European album format, not only showcase Bonhomme’s art in all its expressive favour but also creates a nostalgia-boost as it links back to Tintin, Asterix and Lucky Luke, the oversize paperback books that were so important to me personally as a kid. Bonhomme’s beautiful cartooning resembles something like Tonci Zonjic and Goran Sudzuka teaming up on an expansive period piece, and proves to be as lovely as that idea sounds. His characters are distinctive, expressive and beautifully realised and the sinister microcosm of Brac feels expansive and real and from Brac’s knobbly brickwork to its skeletal trees, to its menacing waves, his work is absolutely superb. Brac’s woods are given a fittingly spooky atmosphere, especially during a particularly taut chase sequence. The fear on Poulain’s face is apparent as he faces death on multiple occasions as is the despair he feels as he fears the malevolent Isle is claiming his very sanity. Baron Gwenole in particular looks both cuddly and menacingly burly, his face moving from the peaceful to the glowering from panel to panel.
When we next catch up with Poulain in “The Black Virgin,” he’s accepted his role as a kind of ghost detective/debunker, travelling from place to place to solve crimes of potentially supernatural origin.For the past two years, at Christmas, women have been horribly murdered near the Shrine of The Black Virgin in rural Puy Marie. The shrine is of special significance to local gypsies, so of course suspicions are cast their way and in particular toward a lovely fortune teller. Poulain, struggling to ingratiate himself with the locals, is not wanted by either the travelling gypsies or the townsfolk. The superstitions of both sides swell and when another body is found, Poulain begins to doubt his ability to uncover the murderer.
The wonderful thing about the Anaon books is just how bumbling Poulain actually is as out slightly mystical, know it all crime solver. Even here, having realised some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy by owning the “role” of The Marquis of Anaon, he’s still far from becoming a brave and heroic crusader. He screams when he’s frightened, vomits when he finds a mutilated chicken placed in his bed as warning, can’t keep his pistol from quivering when pointed at a potential threat. Getting by on an aura of near mysticism that’s completely self-created, Poulain is in many ways as much of a fraud as the charlatans he encounters as he digs deeper into the mystery. However, all of these foibles actually make Poulain a far more human character and in many ways even more relatable. His intent is good and just, his open-mindedness in an era of bible-thumping and belief in curses is commendable, his bumbling attempts at bravery made somehow even braver by the fact that he can’t fight and scares easily. He pushes ever onward with minimal help, into grave dangers he’s in no way ready to handle.
Bonhomme’s art remains gorgeous. His bleak woods of winter-dead trees, his snowfalls, his gypsy camps and frosted stonework are impeccable and atmospheric. Fond of framing longshots with spindly branches and Mignola-esque trees in the foreground as characters meet in the mid-ground, his staging is perfect, his layouts direct. Vehlmann’s script is brisk, yet punctuated by entire pages of quiet moments, allowing his artist to shine and his characters a moment to breathe.
Both of these books are beautiful comics packages. Cinebook touts itself as “The 9th Art Publisher” and with product as cinematic, compelling and visually lovely as The Marquis of Anaon series, they’re backing up the boast.
CRIMINAL: THE SPECIAL EDITION
By Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
Published By Image
Here’s a thing you might not know: Sean Phillips needs pages from Ed Brubaker every week. Necessity being the mother of invention and all that, I suspect Brubaker enjoys having to punch out script for his artist at the rate of an old, classic, paid-by-the-word pulp writer; it seems to fit his aesthetic. The publishing deal that the team has with Image – essentially to publish anything it dreams up, no questions asked – makes everything viable, including a magazine-sized special edition of their series Criminal featuring spliced-in pages of “Sword of the Savage,” a tribute sword and sorcery number that shares inspirational DNA with old Savage Sword of Conan periodicals.
It’s 1976.Criminal fave Teeg Lawless is in the slammer on a two-week stretch for no-showing a traffic court hearing. It’s a typical bad choice creates bad luck scenario for Teeg, who just wants to be left alone in his cell to read old Sword of the Savage tales, but unfortunately there’s a price on his head and a whole stack of jailbirds intending to collect.
Sword of the Savage features the character of Zangar, whose situation mirrors Teeg’s beautifully – stuck in an inhospitable crystalline desert, surrounded by enemies struggling for survival. Phillips beautifully shifts between the “realism” of Teeg’s comics world (lovingly coloured by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and the black and white, inkier, looser style of Zangar in which bits of Buscema and Toth can be picked out amongst the traditional Phillips style.
Brubaker’s clearly having a blast here, mocking the gender politics of old, hyper-masculine Sword and Sorcery stuff in the Zangar pages and peppering his jailbird dialogue with tonnes of rapid-fire gags. The oversized, magazine formatted edition also comes with a hilarious letters page from “Zangar fans” like Kurt Busiek and Chip Zdarsky answered by Brubaker in the sober editorial tone that so often typified published responses to bizarre missives of this type. If you didn’t get this edition, you missed half the fun. It’s no Eternaut or Complete Eightball in presentation, but man, it succeeds in mimicking the old school magazine format exceptionally.
This return to a much beloved series is near-perfect. My only real complaint is a total nit-pick – the lack of hand lettering on Zangar’s pages – and with another of these specials just announced (too late for my 2016 picks last week!) and forthcoming, this time a Kung Fu-themed special, it seems that again this year Brubaker and Phillips will get to have their cake and eat it once more. Good luck topping this one-shot, guys, but I sure do look forward to the attempt.
INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION AND WORLD WAR
By Shintaro Kago
Published By U.D.W.F.G
(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends October 6th )
This handsome, oversized black and white hardcover, published by U.D.W.F.G (Under Dark Weird Fantasy Grounds), is one of the comics crown jewels of my trip to Japan. Featuring a wonderful introduction by James Harvey (Masterplasty), which beautifully contextualises Shintaro Kago’s work for the possibly confused or off put and laments the lack of Kago’s work available in English, Industrial Revolution and World War is otherwise completely silent, requiring no knowledge of either Japanese or English, only a love of strange, compelling and utterly unique comics.
A race of intelligent tiny marsupials, who explore their world by riding ducklings like Tauntauns, discover the numerous bodies of naked young women entombed in a mountain. Freeing them, our cuddly little guys make the most of their discovery by assembling construction equipment from the corpses. Multi-armed earthmovers and cranes enable them to rapidly overhaul their society. Towers are built, freeways erected. Life quickly becomes an industrialised utopia, but when they are invaded by their neighbours, who have transformed the bodies of young naked men into weapons of war, they are forced to abandon their consumerist paradise and remodel their equipment into even fiercer fighting equipment than their foes. Their enemies upgrade their weapons again, escalating things further and world war erupts. It’s utterly bonkers. I can’t speak highly enough about it.
SEXCOVEN (FRONTIER #7)
By Jillian Tamaki
Published By Youth in Decline
2015 was a big year for Jillian Tamaki, with her highly regarded webcomic, Super Mutant Teenage Academy being collected into print and winning an “Outstanding Story” Ignatz for her stand-alone story, “SexCoven” from Frontier #7.
Uploaded mysteriously to the internet in 1996, a “six-hour atonal drone” is downloaded by a teenager. Naming the noise “SexCoven,” the song quickly spreads as it’s copied, shared and listened to by kids everywhere. “Listeners report cascading feelings of dread, fear, love and euphoria,” we are told with transcendental out-of-body experiences and a sense of universal harmony enveloping all who hear it. The song quickly becomes something of a rite of passage, with kids driving out into the woods to listen to it, sparking a trend of “coven crawls” across America, with rules drawn up by teens for teens that travel outdoors to listen to the music in groups.
Tamaki tells her story dryly, observationally, using quotes from magazine articles, interviews and “web clips” to stitch her narrative together. Her layouts are experimental, her art is open and clean. I’ve before described Frontier as the indie Solo, a comic in which those chosen to contribute can stretch themselves artistically and formalistically. Even as Tamaki’s work continues to evolve and develop (witness her illustrations for The Folio Society),“SexCoven” will no doubt be looked back upon and regarded as a high point in her body of work.
By Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba (based on the novel by Milton Hatoum)
Published By Dark Horse
The best extended family drama in comics since Gilbert Hernandez picked up a pencil, Two Brothers is the wrenching story of estranged twins, Yaqub and Omar, expertly told by the comics medium’s favourite twins, Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba.
Based on the celebrated novel by Milton Hatoum (unread by yours truly), Two Brothers is an expertly handled adaptation, lyrical in both its language and visuals. The strange, sad conflict between Yaqub, the withdrawn, studious brother ever at odds with Omar, the extroverted troublemaker, expelled from school for punching a teacher, forms the meat of this tale which unfolds with Literary grace, but there is much more to this family history than merely these two feuding brothers. The relationship between their parents, Zana and Halim, is explored in great detail, their personal histories, their courtship, the birth of their children (including daughter, Rania). Housekeeper Domingas also forms an important part of the unfurling plot and, accentuated by a fully-realised portrait of a surprisingly diverse pre and post-war Brazil, everyone included is fully developed, breathing whole and complete on the page in their various passions and miseries and heartbreaks.
But poor Yaqub, ever seeking a peaceful existence in which he doesn’t have to look into the distorted mirror that is his brother. “Get out of Manaus,” he is even told at one point, “If you stay here, you’ll be ruined by the provinces and eaten alive by your brother.” Escape the town of Manaus Yaqub does, but remains a ghostly presence in the lives of the family, ironically more present that Omar who does little more than lie on the hammock, drink and carouse. Yet Omar is not a character who lacks all sympathy and, as his relationship with his parents disintegrates with almost every turn of the page, the real complexity of these familial relations begins to reveal itself.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay the comic is how honest and real it all feels, with Moon and Ba’s energetic and highly-stylised lines carrying everything forward with an effortless cinematic feel. Brian Michael Bendis is quoted on the back cover, saying, “This book jumps onto the list of the most essential graphic novels you will ever read...” I feared he’d jinxed Two Brothers with that, created an expectation of something ready to be slipped into the canon even as it arrived on store shelves. He’s not wrong though, he’s really not. Two Brothers is a worthy addition to your shelf of the very best.
And there we go. Phew. Whatta year.
See you next week.
Love your comics.